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Paul Bongiorno on the first steps towards integrity.

The first steps towards integrity

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A fully independent commission to investigate federal corruption was one of the biggest issues for voters at the recent election.

Now, the new Labor government has given us a first glimpse of how they plan to set one up.

Today, columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno, on the first steps towards integrity.

Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper, Paul Bongiorno.

Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, and this is 7am.

A fully independent commission to investigate federal corruption was one of the biggest issues for voters at the recent election.

Now, the new Labor government has given us a first glimpse of how they plan to set one up.

Today, columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno, on the first steps towards integrity.

It’s Friday June 10.

[Theme Music Ends]

RUBY:
Paul, something that a lot of Australians have been interested in is the establishment of an integrity commission. And this week we got our first real update on Labor's plan to get one up and running. So tell me about what we know about what's in store. 

PAUL:
Well, that's right, Ruby. So this week Mark Dreyfus, the New Labor attorney general, gave us the first glimpse of how Labor is going to get to work on this.

Archival Tape -- Mark Dreyfus:
We've now got a task force of senior officials headed by a deputy secretary completely devoted to ensuring that we will legislate a national anti-corruption commission this year… 

PAUL:
And it's worth noting Dreyfus was sworn in just eight days ago and he's wasted no time. He set up a task force in his department to deliver what he describes as Labor's paramount objective. 

Archival Tape -- Mark Dreyfus:
It's going to deal with serious and systemic corruption. It's going to be able to receive allegations from a whole range of sources. It's going to be able to, at its discretion, hold public hearings…

PAUL:
Dreyfus says the taskforce would look at similar integrity commissions that exist at the state and territory levels such as the New South Wales ICAC's and take elements of them in designing a Federal Integrity Commission. 

Archival Tape -- Mark Dreyfus:
The election of many independent members of the Parliament who campaigned on integrity issues tells us about the level of public support for this anti-corruption commission. It's a nation building reform. We're treating it extremely seriously…

PAUL:
The department's deputy secretary, Sarah Chidgey, has been assigned to work exclusively on the Promised Integrity Commission. And already there are advertisements for commission staff. But the most important news is that for the first time we know when Labor hopes to have the commission up and running. We knew they'd want to legislate it by the end of the year, something Dreyfus again committed the Government to. But for the first time, he said he expects the Commission to be operating by the middle of next year. 

RUBY:
Right. So, in 12 months time. Is that quite fast, Paul? 

PAUL:
Well, it is fast, Ruby. The department presented the new Attorney-General with a timetable that would see a bill introduced into Parliament next March. But Anthony Albanese had given Dreyfus no wriggle room, which he made clear to his bureaucrats. Labor is committed to legislating before the end of the year and will do so. And Dreyfus already has contacted all the new Teal independents. He did that within days of being sworn in. You know, it's in Labor's interest for these independents who took blue ribbon Liberal seats to be seen to be succeeding. Labor wants them to succeed even at the next election. Well, even though in the House where Labor has the majority, it won't need the crossbench votes. The Albanese Government is talking inclusion and respect. Well, the Senate is a different matter. If the Coalition is opposed, the Greens and independents will be the key to success. But Ruby, it's hard to see majority support being denied because when you drill down there's not a significant divergence between the Greens, the independents and Labor on what the new Federal Commission should look like and what its powers should be. And even the Dutton Opposition is changing its tune.

RUBY:
Okay, well let's talk a bit about what those powers are likely to be and how a new integrity commission is going to look.

PAUL:
Well, Ruby Labor, the Greens, and Teal independents seem to all agree that the Commission should be independent of government direction, capable of initiating its own enquiries based on a variety of sources, including whistleblowers. It should be able to hold public enquiries when it's judged to be in the national interest, not only as a deterrent for corrupt behaviour by naming and shaming, but also to encourage further information. Dreyfuss, though, is particularly keen not to be seen setting up a body that has the sole purpose of embarrassing his political opponents something Tony Abbott did with his pink batts and unions royal commissions. But at the same time, he did say on Wednesday that he wants the commission to look into the past with no time limits and at its discretion. This is the way, after all, the states and territory anti-corruption commissions function in addressing serious systemic corruption.

RUBY:
Hmm. So Paul  it sounds like we're going to get an anti-corruption commission that can investigate any alleged misconduct, without time limit, at its discretion. But I wonder, I mean, at this point, do we know what is likely to be investigated, Paul? Are you hearing anything in Canberra about the type of serious systemic corruption that it might look into? 

PAUL:
Well, Dreyfus, in a couple of interviews this week, was very careful not to talk about the sort of things that would be looked into except the misuse, the misappropriation of public money for private purposes, and what private purposes actually means is pretty wide. It could mean the private purposes, for example, of a political party using public money to entice people to do things for it. That's the sort of thing we've gotten in the broad from the Attorney-General. 

RUBY:
Mm. Okay. And so it sounds like though there is this agreement about the type of commission it's going to be. But are there kind of any dissenting voices amongst that? Will there be any, any challenges for the government in trying to set up the ikeokwu the way that it wants to? 

PAUL:
Well, it does seem that all the politicians want to be noticed. The Greens, for example, are urging the government to merely adopt their bill, which passed the Senate last year. And there's also another bill for an integrity commission that independent Helen Haines put forward last year. Peter Dutton is musing that he'd support her version, though by midweek. Hayden's office said he hadn't contacted her. Albanese says he wants the legislation to be the Labor Government's bill and I'm told Hanes has no plans to reintroduce hers, which is after all, a vote of confidence in Dreyfus. The Attorney-General has been in discussions with Haines, a Victorian regional independent. And the Government is sympathetic to her suggestion she play a significant role in the process. The thinking is that to fast track the parliamentary process, a joint select committee of the House and the Senate will be established. This will give all sides an input, especially the new Teal independents. And there seems to be no resistance to Haines being the co-chair of such a committee.

But the most hysterical pushback on the process came this week, Ruby, from former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. He is stridently wary. If I could put it that way.

RUBY:
What's Joyce said? 

PAUL:
Well, Joyce, in an extraordinary opinion piece, claimed a federal anti-corruption commission would, quote maniacal political vision. Well, if you take Joyce at his word, you can't have political vision without corruption. Truly bizarre.

But as we saw, the Labor government won't need the support of the Coalition to establish an integrity commission with teeth. The overwhelming view of those elected to the 45th Parliament is that such a commission is overdue. And when it comes to the votes that matter in passing this, there's a bit to do. But Parliament will get there.

RUBY:
We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:
Paul, we've been talking about the government's plans to legislate an integrity commission before the end of this year and establish and have it up and running by the middle of next. But there are some other big policies that we also could be talking about that the government wants to put in place sooner rather than later, including a referendum. 

PAUL:
Yes, Ruby. High amongst Albanese's priorities is to enshrine a First Nations voice to the parliament in the Constitution. And that's something that would take a referendum. And we know the sad history of failed referendum suggests without bipartisan support, this goal is doomed. But on this, Dutton appears open minded. He says he's waiting to see the detail.

Archival Tape – Peter Dutton:
“I've said that we're very open to the discussion, to hearing what the Government's got to say. But at the moment that detail is not available and I'm sure they're working on it…”

PAUL:
It sounds to me like a bit of a fudge, especially in light of his own history of dealing with indigenous issues, famously walking out of the national apology to the Stolen Generations back in 2008.

Archival Tape -- Peter Dutton:
“But there are things that can be done now in those communities that don't need to wait for a referendum, and I would like to see those actions…”

PAUL:
But the fact he has not flatly rejected it, like former Prime Minister Tony Abbott did this week, suggests Dutton has sniffed the wind and knows the time has come for some kind of constitutional recognition. Albanese, using the authority and gravitas of his office I think has tapped into a deep vein of a national ethos for a fair go. This, after all, was the motivating force in the successful 1967 referendum, recognising the dignity of Aboriginal Australians as citizens. But there still is unfinished business for the nation. There's another injustice to be addressed and that is the disposition of the continent's first inhabitants.

RUBY:
And if we think that bipartisan support is necessary, do we know then, Paul, how strong conservative support is likely to be for this? Do we know how things are shaping up on that side of politics?

PAUL:
Well, very interestingly, Ruby Dutton has named Liberal Julian Leeser as the Coalition's shadow Attorney-General and spokesman for Indigenous Affairs. Leeser is an outspoken supporter of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. So Labor's hopeful this is a signal that it can actually build a consensus going into a referendum. And Albanese was quick to try and build on any bipartisanship, saying midweek that he took the appointment of Julian Leeser as a very positive sign. 

Archival Tape -- Anthony Albanese:
I take the appointment of Julian Leeser as a very positive sign. I've got to say, Julian Leeser is someone who has been a supporter of the Uluru statement. I want to work to bring people together…

PAUL:
And in Albanese's view, anyway, this is something that simply has to happen. 

Archival Tape -- Anthony Albanese:
“This will be just like the apology to the Stolen Generations; when it happens, people will wonder why it hadn't happened earlier…”

RUBY:
And so, Paul, in your experience covering politics, what do you think that we need to see from leaders if they're going to get things right at this moment?

PAUL:
Well, Ruby, we recently had the 30th anniversary of the Mabo High Court judgement, expunging the lie of terra nullius, the empty land with no rightful claimants to it. The dispossessed have still, though, not received the respect of formal recognition in the founding document of our Commonwealth. The Uluru Statement, though, is an olive branch from the First Nations people. It's both symbolic and practical, an advisory voice with constitutional force, an agreement making framework and facing up to the truth of our past and present. 

Archival Tape -- Anthony Albanese:
Sometimes it's put as if this is just symbolic and there's a difference between practical reconciliation and symbolism. The two are connected. If you don't give respect to people, then you won't be able to close the gap in health, in education, in housing, in life expectancy… 

PAUL:
And in all of this, Albanese is showing the sort of decent political vision, in my view this nation has been aching for.

RUBY:
Paul, thank you so much for your time.

PAUL:
Thank you, Ruby, and thanks for your patience. Bye! 

[Advertisement]

RUBY:
Also in the news today,

The Victorian government has announced a $353 million dollar package to help attract and retain staff working in public hospitals and ambulance services.

 

All front line healthcare workers will receive a winter bonus of $3000 as authorities prepare for a busy winter due to expected high numbers of flu and Covid-19 cases. 

 

The package aims to address concerns long raised by The Australian Medical Association and Victoria’s nurses union who fear a mass exodus of staff after two years of working through the pandemic

 

**

 

And Thailand has become the first country in South-East Asia to legalise the growing and selling of cannabis. 

 

In a region known for its harsh drug laws, the Thai government hopes the law reforms will aid the development of a local cannabis trade that will boost the agriculture and tourism industries. 

 

Recreational use remains banned, but advocates say the easing effectively decriminalises marijuana.

 

7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Elle Marsh, Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, Anu Hasbold and Alex Gow.

 

Our technical producer is Atticus Bastow.

 

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Scott Mitchell. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. 

 

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.
Additional composition this week by Alex Gow.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See you next week.

 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.

Guest

Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.